Internet Matters launches new index to measure UK children’s ‘digital wellbeing’

Father and daughter smiling at laptop screen

Internet Matters today releases its first ever index to track children’s wellbeing in a digital world – and it reveals the vital role that parents’ own habits play in their child’s growth and experiences.

  • First-of-its-kind index is the culmination of a year-long study including parents and children from the same household
  • Research analyses four areas where digital technology has the biggest effect – developmental, emotional, physical and social wellbeing – measuring both the positive and negative impact
  • It reveals children with parents who are more aware of their behaviours and experiences online get more of the positives out of using technology and being online
  • Children who say their parents are on their phones or devices ‘all the time/quite a lot’ when they are trying to talk to them, have a negative social wellbeing score three times higher than children who say their parents ‘never’ do this

The Index is the result of 12-month project that studied children and parents from the same household about young people’s behaviours, experiences and impacts of their online lives.

It will enable society to measure how aspects of children’s wellbeing can be impacted by digital use through rapid changes in technology and global events such as pandemics, while helping shape new resources for families, informing government policies and developments in the online industry.

The new report, ‘Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World: Index Report 2022’, shows how children with parents who better understand the online world’s emotional impact benefit more from the positive wellbeing effects of digital activity.

However, children who lack support can have more negative experiences – and both the positive and negative impacts of using connected technology increase as they get older, leading to calls for parents to keep conversations around online safety going for longer.

The Index focuses on four areas where digital technology has the most impact – developmental, emotional, physical and social wellbeing – to deliver scores for children’s wellbeing in a digital world that can be compared over time.

Top results from the index include:

  • ▪ Scores are 63% higher for positive developmental and emotional wellbeing for children in households where the parents are most aligned in their understanding of their child’s behaviour and experiences with digital.
  • ▪ For children who say their parents are on their phones or devices ‘all the time/quite a lot’ when they are trying to talk to them, their negative emotional wellbeing score is double that of children who say their parents ‘never’ do this. Their negative social wellbeing score is three times higher.
  • ▪ The negative emotional wellbeing score – which indicates that children experience anxiety, worry, self-doubt and negative comparison to others – is 83% higher for children who spend the most time on social media compared to those who spend the least. And 108% higher for girls. However, their positive score for this dimension is also 35% higher, suggesting children recognise both positives and negatives from their social media use..
  • ▪ For children who spend the most time gaming, their negative developmental wellbeing score, in that they don’t feel they can control the amount of time they spend online, is 53% greater. Their negative physical wellbeing score, in that they have poor sleep or stopped sports or exercise, is 64% greater than for children who spend the least time. While gaming can provide benefits for social interaction and skill development, supporting children to manage time spent gaming appears to be key.
  • ▪ Vulnerable children are disproportionately affected. Their scores for negative emotional wellbeing are 50% greater than non-vulnerable children and 48% greater for negative social wellbeing. Conversely, they are 16% greater for positive emotional wellbeing, so are more likely to ‘feel bad about themselves’ as a result of digital interactions but also more likely to ‘feel good about themselves’ – indicating they get the best and the worst out of the internet.

The Index – based on work produced by Dr Diane Levine and her team at the University of Leicester and developed by research agency Revealing Reality – provides a benchmark which can now be tracked year on year, and compared across different groups of children in the UK.

Internet Matters has used the Index to develop a Digital Family Toolkit so parents can access personalised and relevant resources by answering some simple questions about their family, and urges parents to understand the important role they play in starting and continuing regular conversations with their children all the way through their childhood.

CEO of Internet Matters, Carolyn Bunting MBE, said: “We’re proud to launch the first index of its kind that we hope will be able to shape how we help children navigate their digital world amid the rapid pace of change in technology and any hurdles along the way.

“The pandemic has had a big effect on children’s experiences and it is good to know that children whose parents who are on the same page as their kids around digital concerns are the ones who are benefitting the most from the online world.

“These insights offer wide benefits not just in how we can better support families, but also have implications for policy, practice and digital product development as we move towards an Online Safety Bill and Media Literacy Strategy.”

Dr Linda Papadopoulos, Child psychologist and Internet Matters ambassador, said: “We can’t be too quick to judge parents who spend time at home on their phones or devices, especially through the pandemic while they’re using technology to work and socialise more at home.

“However the index does show the impact our own behaviour has on our children and something that is easily fixed by communicating with your child and leading by example.

“It also shows that children’s online safety isn’t just about having a conversation and letting them get on with it. Older children are reporting more negative experiences than younger children, so parents must keep the dialogue going into the teenage years.”

To get personalised advice on how to support your child, go to Internet Matters’ Digital Family Toolkit and answer the questions from the index.